Advent 2

If the muscle can feel repugnance, there is still a false move
to be made;
If the mind can imagine to-morrow, there is still a defeat
to remember;

As long as the self can say “I”, it is impossible not to rebel;
As long as there is an accidental virtue, there is a necessary vice:
And the garden cannot exist, the miracle cannot occur.

For the garden is the only place there is, but you will not find it
Until you have looked for it everywhere and found nowhere that is
not a desert;
The miracle is the only thing that happens, but to you it will not
be apparent,
Until all events have been studied and nothing happens that you
cannot explain;
And life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have
consented to die.
Therefore, see without looking, hear without listening, breathe
without asking:
The Inevitable is what will seem to happen to you purely by chance;
The Real is what will strike you as really absurd;
Unless you are certain you are dreaming, it is certainly a dream
of your own;
Unless you exclaim–“There must be some mistake”–you must
be mistaken.

–W.H. Auden, “Advent, IV (Recitative),” For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013 [ed. Alan Jacobs]), 8-9

Advent 1

“Rejoice, daughter of Zion!  Behold, thy King cometh unto thee!”  Again we hear the glad Advent-message and read how the King of mercy and of truth, our blessed Lord Jesus Christ, fulfils the age-old prophecy with His triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and how the rejoicing multitudes welcome HIm as their King with loud acclaim.  “Hosanna,” they cry, that is, “Save now, O Lord!  Send now prosperity!”  And the Lord God did send prosperity.  David’s Son, yet greater Lord, finishes victoriously His divine work of redemption and forever sets His captive and mourning people free from their cruel enemies–Satan, sin, and death.  Now at His saving name every knee must bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  We have also vowed allegiance to Him, our only King and Savior, in life, in death, through all eternity.  But, alas, we must all confess with deep contrition that we have been most neglectful in our homage ever so often.  We need pardon for our sin, more faith, more love, more hope, more devotion in His sacred service.  And now the glad Advent-message tells us that “He comes the broken heart to bind, The bleeding soul to cure, And with the treasures of His grace To enrich the humble poor.”  Should we not sing our glad hosannas to such a faithful and unwearied Savior?”  [F.W. Herzberger, Family Altar, December 1]


I Love Advent

…but I hate Christmas.  (Listen, if you’re going to be all “I love Christmas!  I love Christmas music!  I love decorations!  I love….,” you can take it elsewhere.  I’m ranting here.)  Actually, I don’t hate Christmas, but I hate everything that goes along with it.  (Yes, “hate” is a strong word; no, I don’t want to tone it down.)  I realize I’m going to personally offend some of you, and impersonally offend others of you.  But what is the internet for, if not to personally offend people I’ve never personally met?  So if you like sappy Christmas movies about how family is the greatest gift, and Christmas muzak that has been recorded so many times that there could be entire radio stations devoted to “O Holy Night” and “Last Christmas,” and if you like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, you may just want to skip this and go back to your regularly scheduled Christmas spirit(s).  (Shut up!  I am telling you how I really feel!)

I hate every single song that has ever been written about Santa Claus.  Sorry, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus; there is only St. Nicholas, who gave Arius the ass-whupping he deserved (“temporal and eternal punishment”).  The only redeeming thing about those songs is this video for the Bob Dylan song “It Must Be Santa.”  I hate most decorations, except real pine trees and garlands.  I hate blow-up Santas and reindeer.  I want to shoot them.

Okay, more soberly: This is not about a “war on Christmas” or whatever nonsense we talk when we get upset about stores stocking stockings on All Hallows’ Eve Eve; I don’t care what the world does.  If Christians are upset about it, don’t buy stuff.  If you don’t like Walmart being open on Thanksgiving, don’t go there.  (Me, I got a nice little Blu-ray player for cheap).  They aren’t going to open if people don’t buy stuff.  Why is it their fault?  “Walmart” is not a Christian.  It is a business.  They make money.  That’s what they do.  If you don’t like them making money, don’t shop there.  (I do think you’ll have a hard time finding a store that doesn’t contribute to some cause or thing you find objectionable.)

And I find it highly ironic that Christians complain about hearing “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and about taking Nativity scenes out of public places, and then they want their churches decorated for Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving.  Spare me your piety.  Either keep Christmas where it belongs, and actually have the “Mass” on “Christ-mass,” or don’t complain about “the holidays.”

We live now, in the United States, in a culture so profoundly pagan that Advent is no longer really noticed, much less observed.  The commercial acceleration of seasons, whereby the promotion of Christmas begins even before there is an opportunity to enjoy Halloween, is superficially, a reason for the vanishment of Advent.  But a more significant cause is that the churches have become so utterly secularized that they no longer remember the topic of Advent… Thus, if I remark about the disappearance of Advent I am not particularly complaining about the vulgarities of the marketplace prior to Christmas and I am certainly not talking about getting “back to God” or “putting Christ back into Christmas” (phrases that betray skepticism toward the Incarnation). [William Stringfellow]

I want Advent.  I want Advent to stay Advent.  Churches don’t want Advent, in spite of protestations to the contrary.  We are part of the problem, not part of the solution.  We want exactly what the world wants: nice feelings and emotional titillation from shiny things.  Let’s not pretend we’re above it all, and then invite it up to the altar.  If we wanted Advent, we wouldn’t “make the church look festive” until the actual festival.  It’s not a coincidence that we don’t fast before the feast anymore.  We want it all now, now, NOW.  What, me wait?  Not when I can buy it all on credit now (and yes, I sometimes buy on credit).

We cannot sustain the emotion we think we want.  I am not against emotion and feelings.  They come along with all great human experiences.  I am against sentimentality.  I hate sentimentality, because it is the attempted manufacture of feelings, when they wouldn’t otherwise come on their own.  Sentimentality is what stores and muzak do.  Churches, qua Christian churches, don’t do sentimentality, because feelings come and go.  Only the Word manet in aeturnam.  Otherwise, when the manufactured feelings go, the thing itself goes (like in this King of the Hill episode [Season 2, Episode 8] where Hank tells Bobby not to get caught up in fads surrounding Jesus, because when the fad goes into the cardboard storage box, Jesus might, too).

And what if you can’t quite muster the feelings, even with all the trappings of the “season”?  What if you’re dying, or depressed, or destitute?  What is left for you then?  You’ll find no place in the modern Christmas conjurings.  But Advent!  Advent seeks out the dying, depressed, destitute and all the rest, and says, “Lift up your heads, your redemption draweth nigh.”  Advent prays the prayer of all of those who have no family with whom to celebrate, no good health, no festive meal, no decorations, no presents, no blow-up Santas and reindeer: “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”  Advent is for those in hospital beds, nursing homes, and homeless shelters.  Advent is not for the self-satisfied, the complacent, the full-up, the always-happy, the Joel Osteen-smilers.  Or, rather, it is for them also: because Advent means death to my ancient Adam.  It means a clear-cutting and carpet-bombing preparation by the Lord’s Messenger for the Lord Himself.  Advent is all about death before life, and it will be meaningless to those who think they are alive and well.

So am I surprised that Advent is all but gone from most churches?  No.  But I suggest that if you keep pushing “Christmas” into Advent (which makes you no different from the stores you like to blame), you will soon not have Christmas either.  Not the real Christmas.  Not Christ in the Mass, because that might offend the people who fill the church to make it “feel like Christmas.”

I know this all sounds harsh, and it probably is, because my misanthropy seems to ramp up this time of year.  I’m tired, and small things set me off.  But I don’t want to hear any more Christians complaining about taking Jesus out of Christmas, when they want to take Advent out of the Church Year.  Do your decorating, etc. in your own house, and leave the Church Year alone. [\rant]

Ah, forget it.  You probably think it’s all an overreaction.  Never mind.  I told you not to read this.


“The awe-inspiring humility of God”

The particular danger which faces us as Christmas approaches is unlikely to be contempt for the sacred season, but nevertheless our familiarity with it may easily produce in us a kind of indifference.  The true wonder and mystery may leave us unmoved; familiarity may easily blind us to the shining fact that lies at the heart of Christmastide.  We are all aware of the commercialization of Christmas; we can hardly help being involved in the frantic business of buying and sending gifts and cards.  We shall without doubt enjoy the carols, the decorations, the feasting and jollification, the presents, the parties, the dancing and the general atmosphere of goodwill that almost magically permeates the days of Christmas.  But we may not always see clearly that so much decoration and celebration has been heaped upon the festival that the historic fact upon which all the rejoicing is founded has been almost smothered out of existence.

What we are in fact celebrating is the awe-inspiring humility of God, and no amount of familiarity with the trappings of Christmas should ever blind us to its quiet but explosive significance.  For Christians believe that so great is God’s love and concern for humanity that he himself became a man.  Amid the sparkle and the color and music of the day’s celebration we do well to remember that God’s insertion of himself into human history was achieved with an almost frightening quietness and humility.  There was no advertisement, no publicity, no special privilege; in fact the entry of God into his own world was almost heartbreakingly humble.  In sober fact there is little romance or beauty in the thought of a young woman giving birth to her first baby.  I do not think for a moment that Mary complained, but it is a bitter commentary upon the world that no one would give up a bed for a pregnant woman–and that the Son of God must be born in a stable.

This almost beggarly beginning has been romanticized by artists and poets throughout the centuries.  Yet I believe that at least once a year we should look steadily at the historic fact, and not at any pretty picture.  [J.B. Phillips, “The Dangers of Advent” (in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, 21-23)]